Relations deteriorated further, when, in 1979, the socialist prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, planned to prohibit any religious activities in the Tur Abdins two remaining monasteries. Ecevits plan fell through and the areas Christians remained nominally loyal to the Turkish government.
Despite this support, the regime in 1981 sought to close Mar Gabriel Monastery and transfer the buildings to the Turkish Muslim Pious Endowments Foundation. This attempt to appease Muslim fundamentalists failed. Reports of attacks by Kurds re-emerged during the 80s.
These repeated attacks have driven most Syrian Christians from their homeland. First they leave their villages for Midyat, then for Istanbul, where a mixed urban community is more tolerant and offers greater economic opportunities to minorities. Others then manage to join relatives in Europe, Syria, or the United States.
In several villages, elders remember when their neighbors converted to Islam in order to safeguard their land and homes. Yet, despite these conversions, about 60 villages were almost exclusively Christian as late as the mid-70s. Now their numbers are rapidly declining.
Twenty years ago Arnas, renamed Baglarbasi by the Turks, was a Christian village clustered around the Church of Mar Kyriakos. The church still stands but its congregation has whittled down to just five families.
As if persecution were not enough, Turkeys Syrian Christians are once again caught in the crossfire between the Turkish government and militant Kurdish nationalists. The Turkish army and police distrust the Tur Abdin Christians, offering little protection from marauding Kurds. Turkish newspapers have widely reported the payment of large sums of protection money by Syrian Christians to Kurds. The reports have been denied by leaders of the Syrian Christian community.
The recent upsurge in hostilities has limited the number of visitors to the Tur Abdin. Those who do travel to the area are met with the same hospitality that greeted Gertrude Bell more than 80 years ago.
To the observer, Derzafaren Monasterys ancient walls appear a haven of tranquility. But these massive walls give a false impression of the harsh realities confronting the community huddled therein. Within them, shaded by ancient trees, Syrian Orthodox monks in traditional black soutanes continue to teach Syriac to eager youngsters. Like their predecessors, they gather every afternoon to chant the Prayer of the Sunset. Having survived invading armies for 1500 years, time now appears to be running out for this small and often forgotten community.
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Chris Hellier is a freelance photojournalist living and working in Turkey.
Tags: Christianity Turkey Monastery Syriac Orthodox Church Syriac Christians